Friday, 23 September 2016

How much has really changed?

I’m more than a little confused about the education policy of the Conservatives in Wales.  At one level, I welcome the statements made this week that they don’t want to follow the policy of the English Government in reinstating grammar schools, and that selection at 11 is divisive.  But how much of a change in policy is this in reality?
In 2013, they proposed reintroducing the “best elements” of the old grammar school system into Welsh education, but without re-introducing the 11+ exam.  The meaning of “best elements” wasn’t spelled out as far as I can see, but in essence, they were proposing a “dual education system” where children were split into two streams at 14.  “Best elements” seemed to amount to “selection at 14”; if that isn’t what they meant, then I don’t know what they were saying.
According to a BBC report, this was a proposal which didn’t find its way into their manifesto for the 2016 election.  However in the leaders’ debates prior to the election, Andrew RT Davies was still making the same vague and unspecific argument for incorporating the “best elements” of the grammar school system into the Welsh education system.  Again, if that did not mean splitting pupils into two streams in some shape or form, then I really don’t know what he was talking about. 
What they did say in their 2016 manifesto (albeit by implication rather than outright statement) was that they were still wedded to one key element of the 2013 proposals, namely that there should be a new post 14 phase in education allowing the promotion of a more skills-based approach.  It sounded to me then, and still does re-reading it today, as though they still intended to introduce some sort of differentiation into two streams at 14, although it wasn’t made clear whether their intention was to achieve that by pupil choice or through some form of selection.
Nothing in their statements this week says that they’ve backtracked on their post 14 proposals.  My suspicion is that the apparent opposition to an 11+ exam isn’t the change of heart as which it’s been presented, and certainly isn’t actually opposition to selection at all.  Merely changing the age at which selection occurs or the form which that selection takes isn’t the same thing as opposing selection in principle. 
There is an underlying ‘truth’ behind the argument for grammar schools, and that is that not all children respond well to a particular approach to learning and not all children have a natural aptitude for all subjects.  However, the jump from that to a selective system (or “dual system” to use the Welsh Tories’ preferred euphemism) depends on accepting a number of other much less well-evidenced assumptions, namely:
·         That there is a particular age for all children at which this difference becomes apparent
·         That it applies to all subjects
·         That it cannot be coped with in a single learning institution and requires that children be split into two distinct categories.
What the evidence inescapably shows is that, however ‘objective’ the tests used to split children into groups may be, one of the prime determinants of where children in a selective system end up is parental income.  It’s not a 100% correlation, of course – a fact which supporters of selection twist into a suggestion that selection supports ‘social mobility’.  But for those who are not selected, it actually entrenches social immobility, and it invests more in the education of the selected.  I’m not convinced that the Tories’ position this week actually moves them very far from their traditional stance in support of that.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Ready for what?

During the campaign for the Scottish Independence referendum two years ago, one of the arguments used by opponents of independence was that Scotland would be ‘too small’ to defend itself against any aggressor intent on seizing its territory.  The way it was presented, there were enemies out there (usually assumed to be Russia) who were just waiting for such a sign of weakness in order to invade.  One of the problems with that argument is that almost exactly the same could be said for the UK. 
As a retired general told us at the weekend, the UK’s armed forces “are ill-prepared to defend the UK against a serious military attack”.  But if the test of any defence capability is the ability to withstand an all-out attack from Russia, then the chances of the UK ever being able to afford an adequate level of armed forces are close to, if not actually, zero.  The logic of the general’s argument is surely that the countries of the EU would need to combine their armed forces in to a single organisation (as indeed, some in the EU seem to want).  I somehow doubt, however, that that was what the general had in mind.
The underlying question is about how realistic it is to assume that there are enemies out there just waiting for an opportunity to invade and occupy the UK.  It seems to be axiomatic for the military that such is the case, but is it really?  The point is that any government has to decide on the probability of a particular scenario before deciding how much to invest in preparing for it. 
The old saying that “Generals are always preparing to fight the last war” seems relevant here; although in this case, the general’s view seems to overlook the last half dozen or so military adventures which have been of an altogether different type.  Perhaps they just don’t count as ‘real’ wars between proper armies, of the sort that the military mind can more easily comprehend.  But it’s a strange world indeed where stating that “Counter-terrorism is the limit of up-to-date plans and preparations to secure our airspace, waters and territory" is seen as a criticism that the government is unprepared, when for most of us it might look as though there is actually a degree of refocussing on what are the greater current threats.
Insofar as there is a logic to the demand that we should always be prepared for another major European war, it is based on an assumption that some or all other states are inherently aggressive and seeking to expand their territories, and an assumption that the best way to avoid such a war is to be always prepared to fight it.  That’s one reading of history; but there is an alternative reading which is that when enough states prepare for war against each other for long enough, such a war is ultimately more likely to happen.
My bigger concern is not that the UK is not ready to engage in a defensive conventional war against largely imagined enemies; it is that the UK is far too ready to engage in offensive wars, and too unwilling to engage in sensible disarmament processes.  

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Big boats for rich people

It has seemed from the outset that many of those arguing for Brexit were harking back to what they see as the ‘good old days’; a time when Britannia ruled the waves, natives elsewhere were suitably deferential, and if all else failed, then a gunboat or two could be deployed. 
But it’s hard to think of a better example of that sort of thinking than this story about those who are seeking, in a very literal sense, to get Britannia back on the waves.  The call for the UK to either recommission the royal yacht, or else commission a new one, has it all.  Symbolism of global Britain and a good dose of nostalgia; these are key elements of the Brexit mindset.  The USP for this little proposal is clear – ‘do business with us: we can’t offer you access to the single market, but we can offer you a chance to sign the contract on a very big yacht and maybe even meet one of our royals’.  That obviously trumps the mere economics of any deal, doesn’t it?
It will be costly, but not to worry; one of the instigators of the scheme doesn’t want the taxpayer to fund it, oh no.  Instead, an appeal will be launched for donations from across the Commonwealth (another throwback to the imperial past) from people who will be only too happy to contribute large sums to provide a new boat for one of the UK’s richest families.  Can’t you just feel the genuflection oozing through the population as we all joyously contribute our few penn’orth as well?
These people really do dwell in the past, a place which has rightly been called ‘another country’.  They can happily spout the utterly meaningless phrase that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ without understanding the rather more meaningful statement that ‘the past is in the past’.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

When only one answer is permissible

Not for the first time, I’m struggling to make any sort of sense out of a statement by the First Minister on Brexit.  What seems indisputable is that he has said all of the following:
a.    all four of the UK's parliaments and assemblies should have to "agree to any deal the UK government comes to"
b.    he could not "envisage consent being given by Wales" [without access to the single market]
c.    he "never called for a veto" [for the Assembly]
Whilst all three of these statements make some sort of sense individually, when put together they are self-evidently contradictory - unless… 
The one explanation that does make sense is if it were to be a requirement that the Assembly has to agree the deal, but with the condition that the Assembly has no right not to agree it.  It’s just a question of placing the correct interpretation on the words ‘the Assembly should have to agree’; it’s not a pre-condition for the outcome being accepted, it’s a statement of fact about the option being given to the Assembly.  It’s democracy, Henry Ford style: ‘You can vote however you like, as long as you vote the way Westminster tells you to vote’.
The sad thing is that it seems to fit quite well with the Labour Party’s notion of what home rule should look like.

Monday, 19 September 2016

Whose Broadcasting Corporation is it really?

In reporting on the proposed new charter for the BBC, the Western Mail chose to lead with the proposal that Wales would be guaranteed a place on the new BBC board.  How nice for Wales – another opportunity for a Welsh voice to participate in discussions before being over-ruled by the majority from England.  (Unless, of course, the chosen representative is carefully selected to be the sort of person who won’t make waves in the first place.)
It’s an obvious attempt to find a ‘safe’ Welsh angle on the news by another organisation not particularly well-known for making waves either.  But I didn’t think that it was the most significant element of the announcement from a Welsh perspective.  For that, we have to go further down the report, until we reach the part where the UK Culture Secretary said that one of the BBC’s “many responsibilities” was to “bring people together” and support “greater cohesion, not least among the nations of the United Kingdom.”
Now the quaint idea that many have that the BBC is somehow an ‘impartial’ reporter of events has never been true; it has always been the tool of the establishment, presenting all news from an establishment viewpoint.  But it seems to me that this is taking that lack of impartiality one stage further; this is giving the BBC an explicit responsibility to act as a tool for one particular outlook, and promote the idea that the nations of the UK are a homogeneous whole.  It says a lot about the self-styled “national newspaper of Wales” that it treats that as almost an addendum to the glorious news about us having a representative who can always be outvoted.
We need a better media than this in Wales; and in the field of broadcasting, the BBC needs to be broken up into an EBC, a WBC, a SBC and a NIBC, each with its own charter decided by the relevant devolved parliament.  And the sooner that happens the better. 

Friday, 16 September 2016

The relevance of qualifications

I never realised until yesterday how useful an HGV driving licence could be.  If I’d realised that it qualified the holder to dispute the well-established consensus view of academics and researchers on matters such as climate change, I might have tried to get one.  I had foolishly believed that it dealt only with the finer points of driving a lorry. 
Now that my misconceptions have been so dispelled, I can only support the proposal that one particular holder of such a licence should indeed be given a platform to debate climate science with those who have the temerity to claim to be experts in the field, a claim whose sole basis is many years of study and research.
Any suggestion that I might be looking forward to the prospect of the MP for Monmouth making himself “look silly” as he put it in his own words would be no more than foul calumny.  The only slight problem that I foresee is finding a serious climate scientist willing to pit his knowledge and learning against someone who possesses such an outstandingly relevant qualification as an HGV licence.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Winging it

The report of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee on the intervention in Libya contained a damning indictment of the former Prime Minister, David Cameron according to all the newspaper reports.  In some ways, though, it’s a pity that the investigation and report were limited to the issue of Libya.
At one point, the report said that “…former prime minister David Cameron was ultimately responsible for the failure to develop a coherent Libya strategy”.  It struck me that the sentence would still ring true if the word ‘Libya’ was deleted.  The debacle over Brexit, for instance, was a result of the same tendency – a lack of a coherent strategy and a tendency to fly by the seat of his pants, making it up as he went along.  Overconfidence in one’s own ability to ‘wing it’ is not a sound basis for good government.  In the case of Libya, it probably led to many needless deaths as well.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

What next for Cameron?

After resigning his parliamentary seat yesterday, Cameron said that his continued presence would be a ‘distraction’ from the work of his successor, and appeared to make it clear that he did not want to be in a position of putting an alternative point of view to that of the government.  However, he also said that he wants to continue in public service and campaign on the domestic and international causes that he championed in Downing Street’.  I wonder how he squares that particular circle.
There was another piece of analysis yesterday by the BBC’s Political Editor, looking at how completely May has junked the people and policies of the Cameron era.  We’ve had a complete overturning of the economic policy which Cameron, Osborne, (and, I’m sure, even May) previously told us were essential.  International policy (towards China in particular) looks likely to see significant change.  This week, policy on selective education was reversed.  It seems that the so-called ‘northern powerhouse’ so beloved of the ex-Chancellor is rather less close to the hearts of the new team as well – and all this in just two months.  Who knows what else will change as she really gets stuck in?
The comment ("it IS a new government", one senior Tory told me, "not everyone has understood that yet") reported in the second story seemed quite accurate to me.  We have a new government, working to a new and different set of priorities.  Whilst the changes are not necessarily in the same direction, the difference between a May administration and a Cameron one looks like being as great – perhaps even greater – than the difference that there would have been between a Cameron administration and a Miliband administration had the 2015 election gone the other way.  And all achieved without the bother and hassle of an election.
But back to Cameron: given the extent of the emerging differences, how can he continue to campaign for the same things without ending up in opposition to May’s government?

Monday, 12 September 2016

The problem is the way we measure

The UK Government’s proposal to extend the use of selection in the process of allocating spaces in secondary schools doesn’t apply to Wales of course.  I guess that means that it will be classified as an ‘England-only’ measure in the House of Commons meaning that Welsh MPs – including Owen Smith – will not have an input to the decision, no matter how much they huff and puff with indignation.  The Conservatives in Wales and their ideological chums in UKIP will, no doubt, renew their demands that Wales should follow suit, and open selective schools here.
To listen to the opponents in Labour’s ranks, one would think that they are totally opposed to selection in education.  But that simply isn’t true – we have selection now, including here in Wales, but it’s selection based on wealth rather than ability.  Whilst it’s true that there are fewer private schools in Wales than in England, and their role in the education system here has always been more peripheral, they do still exist, and in any event, parents can always send their children over the border to an English school if they wish.  It’s an aspect of the education system which Labour has, at the very least, tolerated for generations, and they still show no sign of wanting to end that selectivity.
Over and above that, sending children to private schools isn’t the only way in which wealth can help secure a ‘better’ education.  Again, this is less common in Wales than in England, but the use of private tutors and the ability to move into the catchment area of the ‘best’ schools are options which are simply not open to all parents.
On the Tory side, whilst the argument that it is better to select on ability than on wealth has a certain ring to it, there’s a lot left unsaid by such a simplistic formulation.  The first and most obvious questions are how we define ‘ability’ - and then how we measure it.  Plus – where is the evidence justifying the choice of 11 as the magic age when children’s ability and potential can definitively be judged?  Even if there were clear evidence that it is even possible to assess the long term academic potential of children from one simple test, given that children develop at different rates, how has the catch-all age of 11 been set as the basis for making a determination?
It strikes me that a lot of those arguing for selection are really pining for the past; a golden age (in their memory at least) when the old certainties held sway.  It was a time when the middle class sheep were largely separated from the working class goats (although a small number of the latter were allowed in as long as they showed the potential to become middle-class sheep in time).  But effectively it wrote off the potential of a lot of children at the age of 11.  Some overcame that with time, but a lot did not.
One of the great failures of the comprehensive system in the UK has been that, for all the well-meaning words, we have still not succeeded in giving equal value to different types of ability and success.  Schools and pupils are judged as being successes or failures overwhelmingly on the basis of exam scores, rather then on the contribution they make to society as a whole.  In that sense, at least, it’s true that comprehensive education has not lived up to its promise - but is that the fault of the approach or of those making judgements on such a narrow basis?

Friday, 9 September 2016

Whose debt is it anyway?

I’ve posted on the GERW figures previously, and particularly on the fact that what they show relates only to the position of Wales as a part of the UK, and tells us little about the position in which Wales would find itself as an independent state.  The overall figures necessarily include estimates for some items of expenditure where the actual cost to Wales cannot be separately identified.
One of those is the cost of servicing the national debt.  As part of the UK, Wales is assumed to bear a part of that cost, and the simplest and easiest assumption to make is that the proportion notionally allocated to Wales should be based on the population of Wales as a proportion of the population of the UK, so an assumption is made that around 5% of the cost is attributable to Wales.
That isn’t the only way of doing it, however.  We could assume that it should be done on the basis of share of GDP; given that Wales lags behind the UK average in terms of GDP that would reduce the share attributable to Wales.  We could do it on the basis of share of directly attributable public expenditure – given that identifiable spend per head in Wales is higher, that would increase the share attributable to Wales.
But all of those methods relate to assessing the position of Wales within the UK.  What would be the position of Wales at independence in relation to the national debt of the UK?  Most nationalists – eminently reasonable people – have tended to assume that Wales would take a share, probably on the basis of population.  But again, that isn’t the only option.
If we look at history, we could ask ourselves one simple question – of all of the countries which have over the last 250 years gained independence from the UK or the British Empire, how many of them took on any part of the national debt of the colonial power?  The Thirteen Colonies of the US?  Australia?  India?  Ireland?  I don’t believe that there is a single example of any country gaining its independence which has agreed to take a share of the national debt of the colonial power over and above any debt built up by any pre-existing local administration prior to independence.  And I’m pretty sure that the same applies to the former possessions of Spain, Portugal, France etc., as well as those of the UK.  Indeed, at the time of the Scottish independence referendum, the UK Treasury itself made it clear that it was ultimately responsible for the whole of the UK’s debt.
What actually happens will be the result of negotiation at the time; but perhaps our starting point should be rather lower than many are assuming – only debt actually incurred by the Welsh Government itself.  It would make a significant difference to the economics of independence.  And before anyone claims that that is tantamount to avoiding our obligations, let’s just remind ourselves – who is it that prevents the Welsh Government from borrowing as it sees fit, and therefore constrains the economic development in Wales which would be required to repay debt?